Maria Zhang on translating universal experiences into specific stories

Jacket SARA WONG, pants ZIMMERMANN, bra and earrings ZARA.

“The way I see it, our job as actors is to convey a universal experience through specificity in different characters that are all really versions of us. It’s about being real and true and embodying whoever you are. That gives me the courage to be real and truthful in my own life as well — it’s been a lifeline that gets me to throw out whatever version of myself that I think I am. It’s a way to break out of the mindset of watching yourself watch yourself all day. It also challenges me to always be in a place of exploration, and to continue to transform and not be stuck in a moment — to use mindfulness to embrace change as it comes and let it go. That vulnerability is power.”

In our Summer 2023 issue, Maria Zhang discusses her love of art, her favorite childhood memories, and her early influences as an actor. Ahead of her role as Suki in Netflix’s upcoming live action series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Maria opens up about embracing change, staying true to herself, and finding joy in doing what she loves.


I always like to start off my interviews with something fun. I’m sure you’ve heard of the game Would You Rather. I have a few Would You Rather questions for us to go through, and the first one is, would you rather eat melted ice cream or cold soup?

Cold soup, because some cold soups can be really good, like the Korean soup naengmyeon, which are cold noodles that you eat in the summer, or a gazpacho where you’re supposed to eat it cold. I wouldn’t mind that.

But what if it’s tomato soup or something that’s supposed to be warm?

If it’s something that is supposed to be warm, then probably the melted ice cream because I feel like it wouldn’t be that bad in liquid form. It’s like a little milkshake.

Melted ice cream is just flavored milk.

There we go, flavored creamier milk.

Would you rather have the ability to communicate with fish or read the mind of plants?

Read the minds of plants. I’m a plant mom, so it would be nice to know what they need because a lot of times I’m just guessing. I over water mine, which comes with some casualties here and there, but if I could know what they need that would be nice so I could give it to them.

Exactly. Think about all the plants around you that could tell you so many things. Maybe we would learn the secrets of the universe that way because they’ve been around a lot longer than we have.

That’s true. Maybe not talk too much though, because I have so many here, I feel like we would be having a meeting.

The final question is, would you rather be murdered by an army of robotic babies or be captured in a giant Venus flytrap?

There’s some wording here that makes me pick what I’m going to pick. I feel like being captured is better than being murdered because you have a chance of survival. Being slowly tortured in captivity might be worse, but I would still go with the Venus flytrap because I am terrified of robotic babies. I feel like I was traumatized by Toy Story.  I had nightmares about the little toy with the robotic legs as a kid. 

It’s a really creepy movie when you really look at it.

A lot of those toys are spooky. Until this day, I can’t unsee that baby. I don’t think he even talked or anything.

Jacket SARA WONG, pants ZIMMERMANN, bra and earrings ZARA.

You’ve been acting for a bit now. If you could switch roles and direct a movie about a current problem in society, which problem would you choose?

I’m a big advocate for mental health. It’s something that I struggle with, and I also love coming-of-age stories, so I think the two would go really great together. When you’re young and trying to figure out who you are — which I’m still trying to do — you have to deal with a lot of internal and external pressure, and a lot of times, it can feel very lonely, confusing, and scary. At the same time, it’s also when you’re on a path of finding yourself, and nothing is really set. I think that’s really beautiful and something that highlights those universal struggles with a specific experience. People would see the movie and realize that “I didn’t know someone else was going through the same thing. I feel a little less alone.” That would be really cool to do.

That sounds amazing. I think that’s just a universal problem everywhere. Even at twenty, I still don’t know what I’m doing in life. It’s a thing people go through pretty consistently, especially early in life, and intermittently, even when you’re in your thirties and forties.

You’re always trying to figure yourself out. If anything, you should feel like you’re still trying to figure yourself out. I remember one of my professors asked our class, “When did you feel like you became your real self?” I think that’s so interesting because a lot of times you really don’t ever get to that point. You’re always discovering new parts about yourself.

Continuing in the realm of TV and movies, if you could be best friends with a fictional character, who would it be?

Do you know this character called Pippi Longstocking?

I’ve heard of her.

I’m half Polish. Pippi Longstocking was a popular story for kids in Europe, and I remember loving it. My mom would read us the books, and we also watched the movie. Pippi was this rebel girl. It didn’t feel like all the cartoons where they showed what it’s like to be a good kid. She was super strong, and she dressed however she wanted. She was like an adult, in a way, and took care of herself. I think she would be fun to be friends with because she would drag me on all these adventures, and we would have a lot of fun. Because I’m a homebody, I need someone to bring out that more adventurous side of me. Yeah, she would be a fun one. Or maybe Rapunzel, who is my favorite princess. I love her, and she’s a homebody. Well, before she was broken out of that castle. We’d have a lot of fun doing arts and crafts.

Do you like to do any DIY or arts and crafts in your spare time?

I’m really into visual arts as well. I come from a family of artists, so I love drawing. One of my bucket list things is to draw a children’s illustration book. I think that would be really cool. On the side, I also have been learning how to sew and trying out other DIY projects. It’s very soothing for me.

Oh yeah, I totally get that. You are talking to somebody who has tried basically every creative outlet under the sun. I’ve done sculpting. I’ve done needlepoint. Drawing and painting, which is primarily what I do when I’m not doing stuff like this interview. I think it’s a great outlet for people.

I’m an actor, but a lot of times I find that any kind of creative art can be very fulfilling and add to my work. Sometimes, if you just want to decompress and do some cross-stitching, it’s great too.

Dress GOMEZ-GRACIA, cardigan RETROFETE, earrings ZARA.

Talking about acting, what do you feel like acting has taught you about yourself?

The way I see it, our job as actors is to convey a universal experience through specificity in different characters that are all really versions of us. It’s about being real and true and embodying whoever you are. That gives me the courage to be real and truthful in my own life as well — it’s been a lifeline that gets me to throw out whatever version of myself that I think I am. It’s a way to break out of the mindset of watching yourself watch yourself all day. It also challenges me to always be in a place of exploration, and to continue to transform and not be stuck in a moment — to use mindfulness to embrace change as it comes and let it go. That vulnerability is power.

I feel like as an actor, you have to get in the mindset of these other characters to play them, and just that in itself allows you to do some deep soul searching and find out things about yourself that you wouldn’t have thought about before.

That’s the fun part about it. You never do that with yourself in terms of “I can be a completely different person,” but when you’re put into the vessel of a different character, you can say, “Okay, this is me. It could be me if I wanted it to be.”

Looking back at your childhood and growing up, do you have a certain memory that you think would be your favorite?

I spent my summers in Poland, where my mom’s side of the family is from and my grandparents are. We have a farm in the countryside, like something out of a Miyazaki film, and those summers as a kid outdoors were just magical. I remember when it would rain in the summer, and because it was summer the rain would feel hot — not hot, but just not cold — and it was the most amazing thing to be outside, even though my grandma would be yelling at me through the window to come back inside. There were these little frogs that would jump around everywhere that came out when it rained, and my sister and I would always try to chase after them. A lot of them would gather in a big bucket that my grandparents had sitting outside, and we would play with them for hours (respectfully). Then we would pour them all out at once, and you could see them all leap out and run around everywhere. It was beautiful. This was years ago, but I still see them if I close my eyes. That was really nice.

Farms and the countryside are always beautiful because there’s nothing going on. It’s just very peaceful. It’s not super distracting, and you get to connect more with things around you, which is always nice.

It’s very calming for me to be in nature. A lot of times, we forget how beautiful it all is, and then you’re outside, and suddenly that grounds you and you realize, “Wow, this is the world we live in.” That’s why I try to go back every summer as much as I can to reset. I call it my safe space to unwind.


Growing up, what were some of your favorite shows and actors or actresses?

I grew up in Beijing, so I wasn’t really exposed to Hollywood films until a little later when I went to international school. The way I learned English was from my dad bringing back these Disney films with Chinese subtitles. He would bring one back every week, and my sister and I loved to watch them all the time. Then we found out about Disney Channel. Wizards of Waverly Place and Hannah Montana were my introduction to what the U.S. was like. Everyone seemed so cool in all those high schools on TV. I also went through a vampire phase. Twilight is not a guilty pleasure. I loved it. My sister and I would watch The Vampire Diaries all the time, it’s so good. And I mentioned Miyazaki earlier. I was a huge fan of Studio Ghibli films because I also love to draw and anything to do with nature.

Then there’s the more serious stuff that inspired me. I remember seeing Natalie Portman in Léon: The Professional. I love her. That’s one of my favorites. I binged all of Game Of Thrones one summer. I love Emilia Clarke, and I think she’s so powerful in anything she does. Weirdly, I was also into darker horror stuff. I was watching American Horror Story and Black Mirror, and Johnny Depp in these character roles — I remember him as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland or Edward Scissorhands. I come from a theater background, so I loved anything with character roles that took me out of the norm of who I was.  I would watch him and think, “Oh, my God. This is so fun! I want to do this.” It’s so expressive, and there’s such a range of different things you could try.

There are so many varieties and genres of shows and movies at this point, it’s hard not to be fascinated. There’s always something new brought to the table.

Yeah, I definitely watch a mix of things.

Same. Speaking of Johnny Depp, he starred in Sweeney Todd, which is one of my all time favorite movies.

I dressed up as Edward Scissorhands for Halloween one time, and also Matilda from Léon: The Professional. It’s funny because I have a photo of me and my best friend one Halloween, where I’m spooky Edward Scissorhands, and she’s the complete opposite — she’s dressed up as a Minion because she was obsessed with Minions.

You mentioned that you don’t consider Twilight a guilty pleasure. Is there anything you watch that you would classify as a guilty pleasure?

I don’t like the word guilty. If it’s what you need right now, it’s what you need. I’ve been binging the latest season of Love Island, and I think it’s hilarious. I love when they’re like, “I’ve got a text!” As an actor, I jokingly treat it as character study. I love watching it with my roommates and just having it on in the background. I think it’s silly, and I love the drama.

As far as reality TV shows go, I don’t watch many, but for some reason, I will repeatedly watch Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsay.

I love that.

Do you have any stories about an embarrassing moment on set?

Thinking back on it, it’s not really embarrassing. I think it’s normal to be a little nervous sometimes. I remember it was the first day of my first big girl job, and it was a huge set. I’m nervous as heck. I don’t know if I’m ready. I was. But you get into your own head. The more difficult scenes are actually the ones where it’s a group scene and you have one line. It’s easier when you have a dialogue, because you just focus on the person in the conversation, but I had one line, and I showed up all nervous and I kept trying to make sure that I [remembered] that one line. For some reason, I was like, “I do not know this” in my head, even though I memorized the dialogue already. The nerves got to me when they started shooting, and I can’t say what the specific line was, but I blurted it out. It was one of the most important words in the show, and I said it [completely differently]. I was so embarrassed, but it made everyone laugh. There were kids on set, and everyone just needed that moment to let go. No one said, “How dare you!” and if anything, it was a bit of an icebreaker. Once I got that out of the way, I told myself, “Okay, it can’t get worse than this. Let’s do it.”


You were talking about how you grew up in China, and I actually don’t know what the academic subjects are in China, but I’m assuming it’s science, math, and history. What was your least favorite subject in school?

I wasn’t very great at school, at least not the non-creative classes. I loved art classes and PE. I was very sporty as a kid, and we [got] to go out and have fun, but I wasn’t good at subjects like math or science or chemistry. My teachers said “It’s okay. You’re a very creative person.” I think they understood that things that were too logical for me didn’t always make sense. I tried my best, but those subjects were probably my least favorite.

If you could star in a superhero movie, what back story would you want the villain to have?

I would love to play a villain someday, because I think it’s so much fun for actors to play a flawed character. The most chilling ones are the ones you feel a lot of empathy for, despite their ruthlessness and lack of empathy. I would choose a backstory where you understand why the villain is the way they are because of how life has treated them, or the reason behind their actions. I also love a good hero turned villain, or a villain turned hero. It’s always fun to go between the two when it makes you doubt which one they are. Some of my favorite villains are Villanelle in Killing Eve and Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Javier Bardem is great. Yeah, something where you’re not sure whether they’re good or bad.

I feel like that’s just reality entirely. Everything is very gray. There is no black and white, so I feel like that’s a bit more relatable for people to understand than just “I’m evil and mean, and I’ve always been this way.” 
What do you think has been the best and worst advice that you’ve been given as far as acting goes?

For the best, I had this wonderful professor in college named Deborah. I was taking a solo play class where we wrote our own play about our lives, and I remember feeling so defeated because my upbringing is so specific. I’m half Chinese and half Polish, and I didn’t speak English until later, so I spoke Polish to my mom and Chinese to my dad. A lot of the kids in class didn’t have that mix of cultures, which was okay, but I felt that no one was going to relate to it, since it was so specific. I was just overthinking everything. I remember Deborah told me that if you can make even one person in the audience — even though they may not specifically relate to your experiences — feel like their story is also valid and seen, and make them feel a little less alone, then that’s worth it. She encouraged us to speak our truth. That’s all you can do. You can’t think about trying to please other people and create a story that everyone can relate to, because you want to make it truthful to you and what you know. That was wonderful to hear because there’s a lot of noise in the industry, and people telling you a certain way you should be, but you just have to listen to your heart and be true. Another great teacher also told me that the truth will set you free. There’s a lot of validity in that, because a lot of times, when I feel out of control, it’s because I’m not being truthful to myself and I’m just going along with whatever is going on. It’s really freeing to just be and be truthful and experience life as it is. 

For the worst, I told myself that there was a correct way to go about a character or a right way to deal with a scene, but I realized that it put me in a space where I was reaching for perfection instead of being open to change and the present. Your job is to be real and experience things as they come to you, which can be completely different every time. That’s something that I have to remind myself sometimes — to not feel like there’s a right way. Any path will get me there.

If you stay in the mindset that you can only do this thing this way, you don’t realize that maybe there was a better way to do it, and maybe you could have done it better if you did what someone else suggested.

You always have those doubts in your head. That’s life. There’s all different kinds of ways to go about it.

Going back to when you were first starting your career and didn’t know as much, what advice would you give yourself back then?

Enjoy the journey. I had a very me against the world mentality where I felt like I had to do this, or else all fails. I would tell myself to let go of that fear and anxiety over wanting to make it, and enjoy learning the craft and bettering myself. To take risks, always try new things, and not settle — not feel like you’re at a place where you’re good. I still tell all of this to myself now, but I’d tell little Maria this as well. To just take a breath and enjoy the ride. Whatever feels like it’s the end of the world right now is not going to be anywhere near as big of a deal as you think it is later on. If anything, more things will come up that will make you feel that way, and you realize it’s better to just let it be and enjoy it, and remember why you’re in this in the first place — that initial childhood love, the passion you have for it, and the joy for being able to do what you love.

I think that’s something most people go through, especially if you’re going into a creative field like acting because it’s so highly competitive and so hard to get into. You feel like you have to take on everything, and you have to do everything that’s given to you, and you have to do it perfectly, and you can’t mess up, and you have to prove yourself for doing this thing so that you can be more successful at the end of the line. I feel like if that’s all you’re focused on, you forget to have fun during that whole thing.

The point of you doing this is to enjoy it while you’re doing it and not to feel like there’s a certain point you have to get to. Things will work out by themselves eventually, and not comparing yourself to others is also a big thing. You’re putting yourself out there, but embrace the fear of that. Embrace how terrifying that is sometimes, but also enjoy it.

Jumping back to the present, we’re almost halfway through 2023. Is there anything you want to do in 2023 or 2024? It doesn’t have to be professional, it could be personal as well.

I’m actually not sure what I’m going to be doing, so that’s kind of fun and exciting. Just continuing to grow, whether that’s professionally or as a person. Keep following my dreams, see where it takes me, and keep making memories with friends and family. I’m excited to see them soon, hopefully. None of them are in the US, so maybe I’ll see them in Poland or China. I know they’re rooting for me from afar, but it’s nice when I get to spend a bit of time with them. Being grateful for being able to do what I love and do the things that fulfill me, whether that’s acting or flower arranging or painting or taking care of my plants.

Photography IRENE CHEN





Photo Assistant PETER NGUYEN



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